Labour must learn to speak the language of aspiration once again

Ollie Middleton

In 2015, when campaigning as a parliamentary candidate, I remember several conservations with voters who were concerned by Ed Miliband’s proposal to introduce a tax on ‘mansions.’ Despite living in homes that fell well short of the £2 million thresholds, meaning they stood to gain from the policy, the voters said the ‘mansion tax’ was one of the reasons they wouldn’t be voting Labour. They explained the policy showed Labour was anti-success, coming across as envious of those who had done well and would like to think that, if they were in such a position, they wouldn’t be punished for it. 

The conversations stuck with me, particularly in the days that followed our 2015 defeat. It underlined the dangers of being seen to be anti-success, but also the importance of being pro-aspiration, something Labour has consistently failed to do in the last several elections. If Labour is to win again, this has to change. 

There’s no doubt that this presents a dilemma for progressives who recognise the need to address disparities of income and wealth. How do you balance the need to maintain a progressive tax system and address inequalities without being branded as being as anti-success or a proponent of the politics of envy? 

For answers, we should look to when Labour has been at its best, tapping into people’s hopes and dreams by setting out a positive vision for the future, rooted in opportunity and using the state to support people in getting on in life. When Labour was in government from 1997 – 2010, it used policies like Sure Start, the New Deal and driving up educational standards to increase social mobility and widen opportunity, while keeping taxes relatively low. 

Of course, the challenges of today cannot be solved by the answers of yesterday, but the lessons remain the same – Labour must be seen to be the party of opportunity and aspiration, pulling people up, rather than bringing them down, as part of an ambitious, forward-looking policy agenda. 

In 2019, in particular, far from setting out a positive, aspirational vision of the future, Labour came across as overly negative, more focused on telling voters what was wrong with their lives and communities, than how it could improve them. In contrast, the Conservatives – although clearly wrong – used Brexit as a way to tell a positive story about the future of the country and what we could achieve under a Conservative government, outside the EU. Over the next few years, Labour must begin to articulate a response and rediscover its ability to give voters something to vote for, rather than against. 

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity, with the need to address significant, potentially long-term, unemployment, and rebuild the economy. Between now and 2024, Labour must develop a radical policy agenda, focused on aspiration and opportunity and using this to address structural inequalities. 

The focus should be on using the eventual economic bounce in the years following the pandemic to rebalance the economy and re-skill young people who’ve lost jobs, encouraging companies who have benefited from government support during the pandemic, to provide jobs for under 30s, in exchange for debt being written off. 

Similarly, the pandemic has underlined the importance of technology in the new economy. Rather than raising taxes for individuals, Labour should consider a windfall tax on big tech companies, which have benefited from the pandemic, to fund digital skills training and new technology in schools. Labour must also address barriers to homeownership by stimulating supply through tax breaks for developers and unlocking land. There may also be opportunities to use disused office space for homes, given the pandemic will lead to more home working in the long term. 

Ultimately, the exact policy details are less important than having a very clear objective, vision, and being able to properly communicate the narrative to voters. There’s a long way to go until 2024, but if Labour can embrace some of these lessons and become the party of aspiration once again, it may have a chance. 

Ollie Middleton is a Public Affairs Consultant at Newington Communications, a mentor with Reach Out and a former parliamentary candidate. He tweets at @Ollie_Middleton

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